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Ultima Thule: Unlike anything we have seen in orbit before!

Ultima thule. Credits : NASA / JHUAPL / SwRI.

Ultima Thume is the furthermost asteroid ever explored by humanity. However it seems to be stranger than ever imagined!  The latest information sent by the New Horizons probe reveal two non-spherical lobes which are relatively flat. 

The New Horizons probe was launched on the 19th January 2006 with the aim of understanding worlds at the edge of our solar system. On the 1st January 2019 the New Horizons probe flew over Ultima Thule, an asteroid which lies more than 4 billion kilometres from Earth.  The first analysis from the probe suggested that the object, which is 33 km in diameter, was made up of two small asteroids that fused together several billion years ago.  The first photos allow us to make out a snowman shaped object.  However the more information we get the stranger the object seems to become.  The two spheres of Ultima Thule, called lobes, appear to be in fact relatively flat. Nothing like this asteroid has ever been seen in the solar system before.

A pancake shaped asteroid

“We haven’t seen anything like this orbiting the sun before”, declared Alan Stern the leading researcher for the New Horizons mission in a press release.  According to new images, the largest lobe seems to resemble a thick pancake while the smaller lobe appears to look like a beach pebble that is a little dented. (See below):

ultima thule
The newly revealed shape of the Ultima Thule asteroid. These images where taken from the New Horizons probe while it was 8,492 kilometres from Ultima Thule and 6.6 billion kilometres from Earth. Credits : NASA/Applied Physics laboratory from Johns HopkinsUniversity/SwRI

The Ultima Thule mystery

Stern noted that, “We had an impression of Ultima Thule based on the limited number of images returned in the days around the flyby, but seeing more data has significantly changed our view.”  The researcher emphasised  that the asteroid has a flatter shape that expected which resembles a pancake form.  He continued by highlighting that “the new images are creating scientific puzzles about how such an object could even be formed.”

This is the greatest mystery that needs to be solved. Leaders of the mission are continuing to comb through information sent back from the probe to understand how the asteroid could have been formed in such a way. Researchers are able to create computerised simulations thanks to their collected information which could reveal the asteroid’s history.  However researchers are going to have to be patient. A little more than 4 billion kilometres separate us from the object.  Taking this distance into consideration, we’ll need to wait at least 2 years before researchers can analyse all the information registered by the probe.


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